Athenian democracy and political centrism
As far as we can tell, the beginnings of the values of modern centrism can be found in the history of Ancient Greece. Values such as bringing society together, making democracy thrive, forgiveness and overcoming divisions are universal and can be found in some key episodes of our history, from antiquity until today.
Today, we are going back in time to a crucial moment in the 5th century BC: the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta. This long and terrible war led to the defeat of democracy in Athens and the beginning of a new era.
This article is the first in a series that will appear throughout the summer.
Greece at the time
Ancient Greece was a civilization that inspired and continues to fascinate the world: institutions, political leaders, culture, art, philosophy… Some of the most famous people in history were major figures of Greece.
What is interesting for us is to study a short time at the end of the 5th century. Now known as legendary cities, Sparta and Athens clashed for nearly 27 long years. The origin of this conflict can be found in the fear of an endless occupation by the Delian League, led by Athens, of the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta. Throughout the 5th century, Athens gained power and influence. Spartan citizens were afraid of this.
This is what is called the “Thucydides trap”: in the contemporary sense, this means that a powerful and dominant state will go to war with an emerging power to prevent it from becoming the new leader. At this time, Sparta is the dominant power and cannot tolerate the strength of the emerging power, Athens.
What was the situation?
Years 404 and 403 BC were crucial in Greek history. Athens lost the war and this crushing defeat signaled the end of an era. Sparta imposed drastic conditions: the end of democratic institutions, which were precisely what was responsible for the reputation and originality of the Athenian political system of which Dracon, Solon and Cleisthenes were the founding fathers. Their reforms had enabled the city to organize itself and to equip itself with this system that was unique at the time.
The Spartans forced the vanquished people to establish a new political system: known as “The Thirty”, thirty tyrants and oligarchs — a small group that dominates society — chosen from among the magistrates of the city to impose their law in Athens and carry out the kind of oppression that is common with unlimited power: executions, arbitrary judgments, bans. The oligarchs obtained complete power for a short time.
The most famous figure of this oligarchic system was Critias. On the other side, there were the Democrats, in the Athenian sense of the term, led by Thrasybulus, an Athenian strategist and statesman, who formed an army and reconquered Athens, before overthrowing the Thirty Tyrants and restoring democracy.
Once victorious, they decided to pronounce a general amnesty. They made the voluntary choice to forget, to erase what had just happened and move beyond old hatreds. Peace between “those of the city” (the oligarchs) and “those of Piraeus” (the Democrats) was effective.
Thrasybulus took decisions to enable everyone to end this episode with decency: the decrees that hampered the fallen oligarchs were repealed and their debts to Sparta paid. Recalling past faults was also punished, in order to draw a final line under the past.
Finally, we can quote this sentence from Aristotle in his Constitution of the Athenians:
“No one will have the right to reproach the past, the Thirty, the Ten, the Eleven and the former governors of Piraeus, or even these after their rendering of accounts.”
Why can centrism be inspired by this episode of Greek History ?
Centrism has strong values: finding the right balance, bringing together individuals and creating unity, overcoming divisions, the power of democracy.
After a period of interminable war and endless violence from former enemies, the Democrats could have taken revenge and started a never-ending cycle of violence. However, this did not happen: the moderation of the victorious allowed society and the citizens to keep what made them what they were: a city. Thrasybulus mapped a kind of centrism by making a virtue of necessity and recognizing that forgetting was absolutely essential in order to move forward together towards a common future.
The Center makes possible compromises between individuals in positions that seem incompatible at first glance. It is the perpetual search for a balance that keeps extremes at bay. This is a necessary virtue for any society that wishes to organize itself rationally and not sink into division. Centrism allows two antagonistic parts of a society to live together in a democratic framework. No, being centrist is not being “in the middle of nowhere” or “in the dark”. Quite the contrary. Being centrist goes with clarity, moderation and balance.
To put it differently, centralism is a way to constantly seek to reconcile general interest, humanism and democratic requirements.
Obviously, the idea of political centrism did not exist as such in the days of ancient Greece. Even the term “democracy” did not have the same meaning. However, the values of that time inspired — and still inspire — current centrist values. Exploring our history can therefore show us the pertinence of the centrist philosophy and ideas
Please remind this text does not commit the opinions of the Democratic Movement or its representatives